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Getting Into Graduate School - Part III

Maximizing Your Bachelor Degree

This last, and long overdue, part on getting into a good graduate level program covers the seldom mentioned criteria that many (most? all?) schools use when selecting candidates for entry: the value of your bachelor degree. The obvious side of this would be knowing that some schools are considered better than others, but that knowledge doesn't do you much good unless you plan on transferring to one of those "better" schools. Instead, we will focus on the courses that make up your degree.

Take a minute and dig out the requirements to earn your degree at your current school. It should consist of a bunch of required courses, a few courses you can pick and choose from, and "other" courses. These other courses could be anything from courses to meet the minimum credit requirements, to liberal art courses (such as needing 3 communications credits that could come from a variety of places), to specialized focus courses for your given degree. Hold onto that list. Open a new web browser and go to the undergraduate program for your major at one of the colleges on your graduate school list. For instance, if you are currently attending Brown with a major in Computer Science, Carnegie Mellon is probably on your list of graduate schools, so head over to the CMU Computer Science undergraduate website.

Once you have found your way to the undergraduate program website, see if you can find the degree requirements for your chosen major. Every college website I have been on has those requirements posted someplace, usually as a PDF file. Found it? Now compare the degree requirements from your current school to those of that prospective school. More than likely, unless they are both state universities within the same state, you will see several differences between the degree requirements. Your school might require one semester of Chemistry, while the other school requires two; or maybe your school allows you to choose between three advanced programming topics such as Compiler Design, Database Management Systems, and Operating Systems, while the other school requires Operating Systems. These differences are actually pretty damn important in the aspect of graduate school acceptance.

One of the things selection committees ask themselves when they are selecting candidates is the simple question, "Would our school have conferred a bachelor degree to this candidate?" It is a very simple question that equates to whether or not you meet the course requirement for their undergraduate program, and if not, how far off are you. Basically, the reason for this course requirement evaluation is that if you are "not ready" to be conferred a degree from their undergraduate program, how could you be ready for their graduate program? How can you jump into a Microwave Engineering class at the graduate level, when you haven't even taken a Signal Theory course at the undergraduate level?

Hopefully you have guessed by now that this is the last area where you can improve your odds of being accepted into the graduate school of your choice. It will take a little work on your part, but that acceptance letter and accompanying fellowship is worth the couple hours that it will take you to start comparing all of the graduate schools on your list to your current degree requirements. A spreadsheet program is good for this, find the undergraduate degree requirements for your major from each of the graduate schools on your list and start recording the absolutely required courses and the ones you have several choices from. Compare each of these schools to your current degree requirements: where there is overlap you are good, where there are differences you need to do some work.

This is where your optional courses come in handy. Using one of the above examples, if your school says you need at least one course from the following: Compiler Design, Database Management Systems, and Operating Systems; and several of the schools on your list all require Operating Systems; the choice should be clear as to which course you will be taking. There will likely be a few courses from other schools that don't directly correspond by name to a course at your current school, but more than likely there really is a course that is the same. Start by reading the course description and see if you can find a match by description. Additionally, many schools have online credit transfer evaluators. These transfer evaluators can be priceless in matching up Course A from your school to Course B at another school.

When you are finished you might be able to use the spreadsheet you put together to rule out a school or two from your graduate school list. Any school that doesn't even come close to a match to your current school (and the others) should probably get struck off your list. Some schools are designed for themselves and, while they may admit you, are going to require you to take a bunch of undergraduate level courses before letting you work on your graduate degree. Avoid that problem and just strike those schools from your list.

Your ultimate goal is to wind up with an undergraduate course list that not only meets your bachelor degree program requirements but also meets or exceeds the degree requirements from all the graduate schools on your list. Meeting those degree requirements will go a long way towards getting into those graduate schools, or at the very least, not being rejected out of hand. It also shows foresight on your part, as well as a desire to learn and succeed, and that is what graduate school is all about. Good luck.

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